Gaga Feminism Part 1

This was the reading for the Seoul LGBT/Feminist Reading Club on July 6.  The club meets every second Saturday at 4:00 in the meeting room of the Dunkin Donuts outside exit 6 of Gangnam Station.

By Kyudon Choi

Since popular culture has political power to cast our minds and bodies, LGBT movements have made efforts to reform the message from the dominant straight popular cultures. However, Judith Jack Halberstam I call ‘Jack’ below, instead of he, she, or s/he, in the book, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (2012), points out that popular culture is not just a dominating culture but also a channel which enables us to see through what the reality is going on and how to change this world. Jack claims, the queerness has already been our reality even among straight people, and it is now time for revolution, instead of reform, for occupy our new world, our future without home, usual, and any norms.

Going Gaga

Halberstam asserts, “Lady Gaga is a symbol for a new kind of feminism…a sign of a new world disorder, and a loud voice for different arrangements of gender, sexuality, visibility, and desire…uses celebrity, fashion, and gender ambiguity to craft and transmit multiple messages about new matrices of race, class, gender, and sexuality, and even about the meaning of the human.” (xii)  But, what Jack refers to by the term, “gaga”, is not merely about a commercialized celebrity. It is a signifier to be used to express what we still can’t articulate about what we are newly experiencing. Gaga feminism is “the monstrous outgrowth of the unstable concept of ‘woman’ in feminist theory, a celebration of the joining of femininity to artifice”, refusing to “settle into the house” of the category of clichéd femininity as essential difference, but instead responding to the crisis of all such fixed concepts with mobility, undoing “woman”, and “dressing it up and down, taking it apart like a car engine and rebuild it so that it is louder and faster…(through) improvisation, customization, and innovation…reimagining the very meaning of house in form and function…only then can s/he…occupy gender.” (xiii-xiv) Gaga feminism is not limited to an individual level. It is actually absolutely about new ‘we’ in social crisis. How can we articulate our feminism experiencing the Occupy Wall Street? What will be the significance of our feminism for those loser guys displaced from patriarchy in the postindustrial capitalist society? Should feminists and LGBT uncritically support gay marriage movement? How does gender, for gaga feminists, intersect with race and class? “Gaga feminism, in other words, is a politics of gender for the post-capitalist world that we currently inhabit.” (xv)

Halberstam criticizes those feminists who emphasize mother-daughter bond to resist paternal metaphor for their outmoded commitment to the concepts of Oedipal triangle, and thereby, never taking into account class and race, queer counter-culture opposing the normal family, and uncritically accepting the sex category of “woman” as stable. It is a very white, bourgeois, liberal feminism. It is not that Jack refuses sisterhood. But, “Gaga feminism is a politics…with a lashing critique of the fixity of roles for males and females.” (5) Note again it is improvisational, not confined to the tradition of old feminism. Is Lady Gaga, a mindless popular entertainer, a visual fantasy created by the digital age, or an object, technology, rather than a “real” woman with tactile sense? If the liveliness of an object changes the world, and appeals to a lot of young female fans, why can’t it be a new figure of feminism? Why should we be committed to reformist feminists rather strengthening the definition of “(white bourgeois) women”?

Gaga Genders, the End of Men, and Telephone

Technology, particularly, IVF reproductive technology, changes the material, and even biological, basis of gender. (Q3) It shows the contingency of binary gender category that has been only required by social necessity. “And yet, the pull of those gender divisions that were supposed to wither away remains strong…while the technology may be advanced, the accompanying ideologies of parenthood remain primeval.” (37) In the 2010 film, The Switch (Josh Gordon and Will Speck), for example, Kassie, a forty-year-old single woman played by Jennifer Aniston, confides in her best friend, Wally (man), that she wants to get pregnant, finding a sperm donor online. But, Wally secretly replaces the donor’s sperm with his, not telling her. Even though Kassie and her son, Sebastian (born due to sperm donation), do not know this fact, seven years later, Wally and Sebastian find themselves drawn to each other by such a mysterious blood bond. Eventually Kassie and Wally end up together. This film, though acknowledging the change of intimacy in the contemporary age, “can’t extricate itself from the sticky mess of biological family.” (38) Other films like The Back-Up Plan (2010) and Baby Mama (2008) all send back independent or lesbian women to “natural” home and family. But, Halberstam points out, “…despite these films’ insistence that men do matter, fathers are important, and that nature favors families, they are in competition with another set of images that remind us that the new reproductive politics almost relieve men of the burdens of family and reproductive responsibility altogether and in doing so make men seem…well, like an afterthought!” (39) In other words, men are unnecessary. The fact is that more and more women live alone happier, or raise children without men. Let’s listen to what a wily Roger, in Roger Dodger (Dylan Kidd 2002), argues about “the end of men”. “Artificial insemination…will render sperm as useless as an assembly line worker in Detroit…Two genders has been the default setting for one reason only: So far it’s been the only way to propagate the race.” (42-43)

While white families undergo decline of family as such, and colored, poor people become financially poorer—and thus equally go through family disruption—after the neoliberalistic destruction of patriarchal state welfare, please, remind how G. W. Bush administration and neo-conservatives behaved in the years following 9/11. They waged wars abroad against small countries. They made 1% rich guys richer, scaring people back into conventional sex and gender roles that are no longer effective, not pertinent to the economic crisis neoliberalism has left. “One symptom of economic collapse on social relations…As this toxic nationalist response faded slightly, a new message replaced it declaring that, far from the twenty-first century being the end of feminism, it was instead the end of men.” (45-46) Citing Hanna Rosin’s article, “The End of Men” featured by the Atlantic in 2010, which argues that postindustrial capitalism has employed in favor of women in the workplace rather than men, causing a role reversal, but thereby, such negative effects as the increase of women’s violence, and menace to marriage, family, and all other traditional values based on men and women, Halberstam points out Rosin’s limitation that she fails to recognize the contingency of the very concepts of masculinity and femininity. Jack argues, “(these concepts) are under enormous pressure and have already mutated into new categories of difference.” (48) In other words, binary gender categorization has been practically outmoded. This trend is not new. African American family has already collapsed in a consequence of slavery and, even after the Abolition, incarceration of a lot of black and Hispanic men. This time, as even white masculinity, paternity and family decline, “we should prepare ourselves to reckon with the form, the content, and the meanings of new household formations for varied communities. Indeed, in this shifting landscape of white male redundancy, the news of a pregnant man should have been received as a little ray of hope for male reproductive futurity…just a part of a sea change in reproductive politics, one that has produced a rise in the medical industry of assisted fertility for wealthy couples who choose to have kids later in life; a boom in lesbian and gay childrearing; and a seismic shift in the meaning of ‘family’ and ‘parent’.” (50-51)

But, the media do not reflect the real trend. For example, TV series such as Big Love on HBO (2006-2011), only pretending to show American viewers diverse forms of family, sneakily and ideologically repeats backlash compelling viewers, for example, to prefer the past forms of deeply religious big family as seen in a Mormon family with polygamy. (Q6) Can it, such a backlash, be another form of diversity? Hollywood’s films also, just apparently assuming diversity, still privilege the nuclear family of father, mother, and baby. The Kids Are All Right (2010, Lisa Cholodenko), deals with lesbian parenting boom. Nic and Jules are a married lesbian couple, raising their kids, Laser and Joni calling them “moms”. Their parenting and marital life are depicted as boring. Laser wants to find his sperm donor. Paul, the sperm donor dad, a cool, nice guy enjoying Bohemian lifestyle, shows up, riding on his BMW. Once Paul becomes intimate with them, a crisis of this family begins. Jules and the kids get closer and closer to Paul, and Paul tells Jules to leave Nick. Even though the movie morally ends with the family’s rejection of Paul, revealing Paul’s lack of understanding of this family’s relationship, Halberstam points out that the film delivers a message that gay marriage is not different from the straight ones, while making audience presume heterosexual attraction to be natural.

Then, what is gaga feminist’s anarchist take on “the end of men”? Halberstam reads it from Lady Gaga’s music video, Telephone (2010). In this video, Gaga goes to jail for having murdered her boyfriend. The women’s prison is full of lesbians and tranny inmates, which may be seen as the representation of otherness, and broken communications like wired phones that ring but do not get picked up. Gaga, after answering a cellular phone call, exits to find Beyonce waiting for her in the Pussy Wagon. After a homicide at the diner, Gaga and Beyonce drive the Pussy Wagon, travelling on a highway Just as Thelma and Louise. The tension between fixed wired phone and mobile wireless phone is particularly important to note. Halberstam comments, “While the easy gloss on the gendered meaning of ‘telephone’ would cast woman as the silent receiver, patiently waiting for a call, and would picture the man as the active caller deciding when and where to push the buttons, in actual fact the song and the video refuse this gender scheme.” (62) Digital mobile technology is an enabler of the shift of gender configuration. “(While) wired phones are fixed in place, not mobile, wearable but also restricting…The mobile phone is a player in the battle of lovers, and so Lady Gaga and Beyonce decide to unleash themselves from the tyranny of the phone—instead of hanging on the telephone, they become the telephone.” (64) And then, as in Gaga and Beyonce’s conversation at the end of this video, they run far away, and will never come back, and thus, heterosexuality fades away into the past.


Q1. Have you ever seen Lady Gaga’s performances? Do you like her? Do you agree with Jack, for example, that Lady Gaga is a manifestation of female masculinity—shouting in an energetic voice as in The Sun Is Down (2010)—or a new trend of feminism?

Q2. What are you feeling about gaga feminism after briefly reading this summary?

Q3. What do you think about technological innovation, for example, digital technology? Is it masculine because it’s visual? Should a woman smell and touch rather than see? What do you mean by “human” technological innovation is said to make unnecessary? What do you mean by those valuable things technology is said to destroy? Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012) was a radical feminist who was famous as a co-founder of the feminist group, Redstockings, as opposed to ‘bluestocking’, a pejorative term for the bourgeois liberal feminists. She says gender inequality comes out of patriarchal compulsion based on biology, for example, pregnancy, childbirth, and its following child-rearing. So, she advocates artificial reproduction which will eventually enable a feminist revolution to occur through achieving “the end goal”, the elimination of sex distinction. Gender role or division of labor will be made unnecessary through cybernetics.[1] However, Firestone’s position might sound like a technological utopianism according to which technological advance can at least lay out the basis for social progress. An ecofeminist, for example, Vandana Shiva, an Indian environmental activist, would be opposed to artificial reproduction, juxtaposing the patriarchal exploitations of women and the environment.[2] For Shiva, it would be unavoidably the destruction of the nature of women. What do you think about technology? Can it be an enabler for women’s emancipation? Or, is it another destroyer of women’s, so-called, nature, i.e., breast and womb, or earth mother?

Q4. “Given how many efforts have been made in the United States and elsewhere to actually eliminate black men, ‘the end of black men’ would sound sinister rather than prophetic, descriptive rather than predictive, and would easily feed into eugenicist fantasies of socially engineered white domination.” (50) In fact, racism and the western imperialism have shown tendency to castrate or, at least, weaken, specifically, colored, Asian and African men. Halberstam points out the reproductive medical technology is not new, as a continuation of eugenics and reproductive politics even returning to loser white men. Do you agree? Is modern history a castration process of males except a handful of rich white guys at the top of every hierarchy?

Q5. Is really the underemployment of men due to women’s being more suitable to post-industrial capitalism? Isn’t it actually because capital could employ women at cheaper wages after neoliberal destruction of the patriarchal welfare state in 1980’s?

Q6. Recall Q4. Well, this polygamous family consisting of a man and many wives! Isn’t it the hidden intention of such a handful of capitalist rich guys to realize after getting rid of male losers?

Q7. A lot of thinkers are, if you like my expression, past-oriented. For them, there exists something essential, natural and valuable for human that is now being destroyed by technology, or object. They hate technology, always claiming we must go back to the past before technological civilization. But, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Jack Halberstam seem to disagree with them. We must go future, never returning backward. Technology can be an enabler for women’s emancipation and the abolition of sex category. Do you like the plot of Telephone and its evaluation of Halberstam’s?

[1] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectics of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, New York: Morrow 1970, pp10-11, cited in J. Jack Halberstam, ibid., pp33-34

[2] Vandana Shiva, Staying alive: women, ecology and survival in India, Zed Press 1988


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